Lisa Desforges
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

How can the trade tap into a trend for zero proof ‘alcohol’?

5th July, 2017 by Lisa Desforges

It used to be a sight on the tourist trail for visitors to the UK. See the locals’ funny drinking habits, watch as they fall out of pubs, or removed at exactly 11.30pm – a peculiar time to stop socialising, particularly if you’re Spanish, says Lisa Desforges, strategy director at London design agency B&B studio. But no more. Is it coincidence that as our laws on alcohol relaxed our drinking habits improved? Or is it the rise and rise of “zero-proof”: the novel notion that you don’t have to get drunk to have a good time?

Mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana’s Superfly – a non-alcoholic drink containing kola nut, cascara syrup and green coffee – made in collaboration with botanical juice brand Firefly.

There was a time when the only non-drinker at the party would be the driver (and a time before that when even they would indulge). Together with any pregnant women, these poor souls would be left sipping bleakly on mineral water, unless they were happy to preserve their livers at the expense of their teeth and drink carbonated flavoured sugar all evening.

The latest generation of drinkers is having none of this. Perhaps it’s the increasing focus on health and wellbeing, or perhaps it’s living life in the public eye, with a digital record of every social faux pas stored somewhere for future partners or employers to see, but millennials don’t, in general, want to get drunk and fall over –­ and they aren’t prepared to drink sugary rubbish, either. This combination presents a huge opportunity for brands – one that is not, at the moment, being pounced on.

Accentuate the positive

It’s not that there’s no-one out there catering to this new market: there are certainly far more non-alcoholic, non-sugary drinks around. But they don’t seem to have a sophisticated understanding of who they are targeting. These drinkers are not teetotal, nor are they apologising for their zero-proof choice. They just don’t feel like a boozy beverage.

They’re not wishing there was gin in their tonic or vodka in their tomato juice, because their idea of coolness has nothing to do with alcohol. They are more on the wavelength of eccentric artist Salvador Dalí, who said: “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.” With this generation – and the older people following suit – it’s not about boosting your confidence, it’s all about communicating your “self”.

Don’t fake it

Brands that trade on being “almost alcohol” or “wannabe alcohol” are missing a very important trick. This is a discerning market that wants something tasty – and sexy – to drink, not a bunch of drunks in recovery fending off another hangover. They don’t subscribe to the social codes that have always seen booze as alluring and dangerous. But currently nobody has found a way to make them see non-alcoholic drinks as tempting, either.

There are some moves in this direction with a growing understanding for the need to communicate craft and the sense of theatre that comes with the appeal of alcohol. Botanical drinks brands that aren’t just non-alcohol, nor are they simply fizz and sugar – and no way do they come under the condescending heading of “mocktail”. These are soft options that use the language of alcohol – without turning themselves into a pale imitation.

Authenticity, authenticity, authenticity…

Young people are highly discerning. They want products that look beautiful, because if you can’t put it on social media, what’s the point? They want healthy ingredients, because that’s their thing. They don’t want to rack up a huge carbon footprint every time they lift their glass, because they have a social conscience.

Hypocrisy gets you nowhere with this market, and the legally required “drink responsibly” tag reeks of it – beverage companies need to put their money where their mouths are. Which is why, presumably, Diageo recently bought a 20% stake in non-alcoholic spirit brand Seedlip.

They know that, in a world of lifestyle brands and heightened consumer awareness, they need to be much more than a drinks company. If you want your target market to drink responsibly, you’d better help them to do just that if you want to retain your reputation – and market share.

…And don’t forget about dinner

These folks are foodies. When they do drink alcohol, they want something that works with their carefully thought-out dinner (they are currently getting very keen on sour beer). And when they aren’t drinking alcohol, a sugary, carbonated drink simply won’t do. It will mess with the flavour of their locally reared pork, their hand-pulled orecchiette or rubbed fennel. With alcohol, they drink less but better. They are used to paying a premium for their gastronomic pleasures – get the branding right and they will gladly do the same for a zero-alcohol drink.

Looks matter

And they’re not just sophisticated drinkers – they are clever at reading branding, too. A bottle that appeals to them will look good, talk clearly and will have the same effect on their conscience as on their faculties – that is, it will leave a clear head as well as a pleasant taste.

Superfly is a well-considered limited edition that answers this desire. Combining bold, shelf stand out (made up entirely of illustrations inspired by botanical books) with a taste that also packs a punch – a bittersweet finish using botanicals found in historic spirits (used as uplifting stimulants, aphrodisiacs and liveners to encourage socialisation without the need for booze). It’s a straightforward connection to the current vogue for health drinks and celebrity cool – the drinks are conceived by star mixologist Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan.

And nowhere is there any implication that you are only drinking this because you are unable, for whatever reason, to enjoy a “real” drink.

Taste matters, too

Brewdog offers Nanny State, at 0.5% alcohol, which it brands no differently to its other beers, although the witty name is a giveaway. And it tastes good. (The implication is clear: “Who cares how much alcohol it does or doesn’t contain?”)

And various companies who are channelling the current passion for kombucha, or “living tea”, are offering enticing branding, with clearly thought-out messages that make much of keywords like ‘probiotic’ ‘organic’ ‘health’ and ‘enzymes’. They emphasise their similarities to craft beer – carefully brewed, using yeast and premium ingredients – and make no apology whatsoever for their drinks’ failure to contain any booze.

The future is bright…

This category is only going to become more mainstream and more interesting. Anyone who thinks that non-alcoholic is a fad might want to consider the current emphasis on health and quality that is pushing consumers this way. After all, if you’re prioritising quality over quantity when it comes to alcohol, you’re going to need a lot more booze-free options.
Alcohol isn’t going anywhere, but it is getting more competition, in the glass and on the shelf. Watch out for a time when it’ll be impossible to tell who, at a social occasion, is “drinking” and who is just drinking. Provided, of course, those in charge of brand creation lose the disparaging attitude and treat the zero-proof category with the respect it deserves.

3 Responses to “How can the trade tap into a trend for zero proof ‘alcohol’?”

  1. This article has sure tickled my North-American, Canadian, and Québécoise X-Gen curiosity. I will be looking out for those products, keeping the above analysis in mind.
    Meanwhile, I am forced to rethink some of my own paradigms concerning drinking… 😉 Thank you for your work.

  2. Taste all that’s on the market, buy the best, make it a “house wine” and use it for tastings after all it is a wine. It will soon become a feature with staff and diners. Use the term Zero Alcohol and present to the client pointing out 0.5% is so very little. Diners who cannot drink any amount of alcohol should pick up on this It will surprise restaurants who have been struggling with low or lower strengths of alcoholic drinks. By not relegating it to the back shelve feature it and reap the benefits. Stephen Barrett – Wine Writer

  3. The Alcohol-Free Shop has been blazing the trail of the sober spender for more than a decade. The on-trade needs to wake up. Too many new entrants into the zero-alcohol category seem to think non-drinkers are prepared to pay exorbitant prices for soft drinks. They are not. Silly price tags are just putting people off.

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